SpacePolicyOnline.com Latest News

Chinese Astronauts Preparing for Return Tonight (EDT)-Update

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2012 (Updated: 28-Jun-2012 09:25 AM)

UPDATE:   Bob Christy's calculation of a projected landing time of 02:03 GMT June 29 (10:03 pm tonight EDT) and the undocking time for Shenzhou-9 have been added.

China's three-person Shenzhou-9 crew is preparing to return to Earth about 10:00 pm tonight, June 28, Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), which will be 10:00 am June 29 Beijing time (or 02:00 GMT June 29).  

The crew was launched on June 16 and this is the longest of China's human space flight missions to date. 

China's space program takes place at a measured pace.   The first Chinese astronaut, or taikonaut, was launched in 2003 on Shenzhou-5.   Two years later China launched Shenzhou-6 with two astronauts.  The third mission, Shenzhou-7, took place three years after that, in 2008, with a three-person crew and the first Chinese spacewalk.   The current mission is the fourth to carry a crew.   Five other Shenzhou spacecraft have been launched without crews as test flights (Shenzhou 1-4, Shenzhou-8).  Shenzhou-6 was the longest mission until now, lasting five days.

Shenzhou-9 already has undocked from the Tiangong-1 space station module.  Liu Wang conducted a manual undocking according to China's Xinhua news service (in English).  One mission objective was to demonstrate manual docking and undocking as a test should automated systems fail.  The crew was launched on June 16 and docked with Tiangong-1 in automated mode two days later.   After spending several days adjusting to weightlessness, Liu Wang and mission commander Jing Haipeng reentered Shenzhou-9 and conducted preliminary tests in preparation for Liu Wang to perform a manual re-docking.   The third crew-member, Liu Yang, China's first woman astronaut, remained in Tiangong-1 during this exercise.  She has been in charge of biological and medical experiments.  Later, all three entered Shenzhou-9, undocked, and manually redocked.

Xinhua did not announce the time that Shenzhou-9 undocked from Tiangong-1, but said the crew had reentered the capsule at 6:00 am Beijing Time June 28 (6:00 pm June 27 EDT).  Bob Christy at zarya.info said undocking was at 9:22 am Beijing time June 28 (01:22 GMT; 9:22 pm June 27 EDT) and calculates that landing will be at 02:03 GMT June 29 (10:03 pm tonight EDT).

Tiangong-1 will be boosted to a higher orbit until China is ready to launch the next crew, expected next year. 

Correction:  An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that one of the three crew remained on Tiangong-1 during the manual docking exercise, but all three were in Shenzhou-9 when the spacecraft separated from and then redocked with Tiangong-1.  It was during a preliminary test that two were in Shenzhou-9 and one remained in Tiangong-1;  the two vehicles remained docked together during that test.

GAO: Weather Satellite Data Gap Also Looms for GOES-R, JPSS Cost Estimate Higher Than Publicized

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2012 (Updated: 28-Jun-2012 08:10 AM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) told Congress yesterday that in addition to a possible gap in data from NOAA's polar-orbiting weather satellites, a similar gap in data from its geostationary satellites could also occur.   It also told two House subcommittees that NOAA's cost estimate for its new polar-orbiting satellites actually was $14.6 billion, not the $12.9 billion figure NOAA uses publicly.  That figure is a cap imposed by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and NOAA is taking action to reduce costs to meet that target.

NOAA operates weather satellites in polar orbits that circle the entire globe as well as in geostationary orbits that maintain a fixed position over the equator.  The current generations are called Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites (POES) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES).   NOAA was part of a tri-agency program to build new polar orbiting satellites called the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), but that program failed and NOAA is now embarked upon its own Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). NASA manages the acquisition of those satellites through a reimburseable arrangement with NOAA.  Separately, NOAA is developing a new generation of GOES satellites -- the GOES-R series. 

GAO's David Powner told two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that, overall, both of those weather satellite programs are doing better than in the past, but that does not mean they are trouble free.  The biggest surprise of the hearing was Powner's statement that NOAA has only a 48 percent confidence level that GOES-R, the first of four satellites in the series, will meet its launch date in October 2015.  A potential delay in the shipment of the Geostationary Lightning Mapper was cited as one schedule risk factor.

Concern has been focused on a potential data gap for the polar orbiting satellites.   NOAA's existing POES satellites already are getting old.   A NASA satellite, NPP Suomi, designed and built as a technology testbed for the NPOESS program, is being repurposed as an operational weather satellite to provide data between now and when the first JPSS is launched.  That is scheduled for the spring of 2017, but there is concern that it will not be on orbit with its instruments properly calibrated and validated before NPP Suomi ceases operations.  Powner said a 17-month data gap is a best case scenario if NPP Suomi lasts five years and JPSS-1 keeps its 2017 launch date.  

Powner also revealed at the hearing that NOAA's actual cost estimate for JPSS was $14.6 billion, but OMB told NOAA it could only have $12.9 billion.  NOAA refers to that as a "cap" and it is $1 billion higher than what NOAA told Congress last year.  It includes sunk costs in NPOESS, two JPSS satellites, two additional small satellites for instruments that cannot be accommodated on JPSS, and operations through 2028.  NOAA explained earlier this year that the $1 billion increase is because it extended the operational period from 2024 to 2028, so the lifecycle cost estimate covers an additional four years of operations.

Stung by the NPOESS fiasco where years of cost overruns and schedule delays ultimately led the White House to kill the program in February 2010, Congress views this new $1 billion increase with alarm, however.  The Senate Appropriations Committee lambasted NOAA in its report (S. Rept. 112-158) on the FY2013 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill and called for the weather satellite programs to be transferred to NASA because of NOAA's management shortcomings.  NOAA would still operate the satellites once in orbit, but NASA would otherwise be responsible for them.

NOAA's Deputy Administrator Kathy Sullivan and NASA's Marcus Watkins, Director of the Joint Agency Satellite Division, declined to tell the subcommittees what the Obama Administration's position is on the Senate proposal.   Both insisted that the Administration is studying the implications and not yet ready to take a position.  Watkins' division serves as the acquisition agent for NOAA's satellites, managing the contracts for the satellites and associated launch vehicles.  NOAA reimburses NASA for those activities today, but under the Senate Appropriations Committee's plan, NASA would be completely in charge and the money would be appropriated to NASA rather than NOAA.

Powner emphasized the $1.7 billion "funding gap" for JPSS between NOAA's estimate of $14.6 billion and OMB's cap of $12.9 billion.  A GAO report released simultaneously with the hearing discloses the options NOAA is considering to cope with that shortfall.  Sullivan said she has "high confidence" that the measures NOAA is taking to get down to the $12.9 billion figure will be successful, but that it also needs "very high and continued scrutiny."

Sullivan and Watkins were asked about the potential impact on JPSS and GOES-R of a Continuing Resolution (CR) that goes beyond the first quarter of FY2013. Congress routinely passes CRs when it cannot complete action on the regular appropriations bills by the beginning of a fiscal year on October 1.  CRs generally hold agencies to their previous year funding levels.  Agencies have become accustomed to CRs for that last one-three months, but problems can develop if they last longer.   Sullivan and Watkins indicated that JPSS probably would be OK under even a long-term CR since the requested funding level for FY2013 is almost the same as what it received for FY2012 (just over $900 million).    GOES-R, however, needs a "bump" in FY2013 to begin acquiring a launch vehicle.  The GOES-R request for FY2013 is $802 million compared to the $616 million it received for FY2012.   If it is held at the FY2012 level,  there could be "severe negative impacts" to the program's cost and schedule, Watkins said. 

A webcast of the hearing and prepared statements are available on the committee's website

Lubchenco: Financial Misconduct at National Weather Service "Very Clever," "Hidden" -- UPDATE

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 25-Jun-2012 (Updated: 28-Jun-2012 08:58 AM)

UPDATE:   Government Executive magazine reports that the House Appropriations Committee approved the $36 million reprogramming on June 27.

ORIGINAL STORY: A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) internal investigation that discovered the illegal reprogramming of millions of dollars in appropriated funds at its National Weather Service (NWS) found no evidence of financial personal gain, but these actions were “very clever” and “hidden,” according to Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator.

Speaking at a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) on Thursday, Lubchenco stated that before November 29, 2011, she had no knowledge of the alleged financial misconduct that resulted in the reprogramming of 4 percent of the NWS budget without congressional approval.  Within 48 hours of learning about the allegations, she set in motion 12 corrective actions and launched the internal investigation that culminated in May, she stated.  

Summarizing the results of the investigation into the unauthorized reprogramming of funds in FY2010 and FY2011, Lubchenco made a point to say that these actions were carried out by three individuals within the NWS, while stressing that its mission was not compromised. Still, she described it as “very wrong and, in my view, gross misconduct.”

To delve more deeply into the issue, the agency will release a contract for an independent study -- a “deeper dive” -- she said, to identify the true extent and motivations of these actions. She reiterated that there was no external indication that something was wrong, “no red flags” or “obvious warning.”

CJS Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) described the findings as “very serious and disturbing” and expressed repeated concerns that NOAA’s missions to protect life and property were suffering.  He said that the mission of the NWS remains “one of the highest priorities” and that if the Department of Commerce (DOC), of which NOAA is part, had requested help, “we would have worked with you.”

NOAA is requesting congressional approval to officially reprogram $36 million in the current fiscal year ((FY2012) to allow NWS core services to continue.  Otherwise there will be unavoidable furloughs for NWS employees.  The CJS subcommittee submitted 65 questions for the record and tasked Lubchenco with responding to them by Monday at 5:30 pm in order not to hold up the process to consider the request.

In the meantime, Senate appropriators announced that they will approve the reprogramming.  

Looking beyond NOAA, several House CJS subcommittee members expressed frustration that the NWS action was, in their view, just one more of recent examples of agency misconduct.  Representatives Jo Bonner (R-AL) and John Culberson (R-TX) asserted that this kind of mismanagement is not limited to NOAA or even the DOC.  Alluding to the Secret Service scandal, Bonner said that the NWS issue was “part of a pattern” and another example of an Administration with an “attitude of just ignoring Congress when it pleases those in a position to do so.”  Culberson agreed that “this is the tip of the iceberg…it’s bigger than just NOAA.”

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), ranking member of the CJS subcommittee, retorted that it was “slightly tainted” to blame the Obama Administration when the responsibility rests on the three individuals involved who likely came into the agency during a previous, Republican, administration.

While saying that this was not a partisan issue, Wolf noted that there has been a shift in attitudes and “the agencies really don’t like Congress.”   Therefore, he said, dealing with the misconduct at the NWS would send a message to the rest of the federal government of the importance of following the law.

Events of Interest: Week of June 25-29, 2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jun-2012 (Updated: 24-Jun-2012 12:12 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.  The House and Senate both are in session this week.

Monday, June 25

Monday-Wednesday, June 25-27

Monday-Thursday, June 25-28

Tuesday, June 26

Tuesday-Thursday, June 26-28

Wednesday, June 27

Thursday, June 28

Friday, June 29

 

Chinese Manual Docking Successful; Chinese Human Spaceflight Budget Revealed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jun-2012 (Updated: 24-Jun-2012 10:48 AM)

Three Chinese astronauts in the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft successfully accomplished a manual docking with the Tiangong-1 space station.  This is the first manual docking of a Chinese crew with a space station; the first docking, on Monday, was accomplished in automated mode.   China also revealed how much the Shenzhou program has cost overall.

Liu Wang was at the controls as Shenzhou-9 undocked from Tiangong-1, moved 140 meters away, and then redocked.  China's English-language CCTV has video of the operation.  The crew undocked from Tiangong-1 and about an hour and a half later, at 12:42 pm Beijing time (12:42 am Eastern Daylight Time), began the manual docking.  It  took 7 minutes, "3 minutes faster than the automated system" according to China's Xinhua news service (in English).

The crew will now re-occupy Tiangong-1 and remain until Friday, when they will return to Earth.   The mission is commanded by Jing Haipeng.  The third crewmember is Liu Yang, China's first woman astronaut, who is in charge of the medical and biological scientific experiments.

Xinhua quoted Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China's human spaceflight program, as saying that China's budget for the rendezvous and docking missions Shenzhou-7 through Shenzhou-10 is "19 billion yuan (3 billion U.S. dollars)" and China spent "another 20 billion yuan on manned space missions carried out by Shenzhou-6 and previous spaceships" since the human spaceflight program began in 1992.  It is not clear is the 19 billion yuan includes the Tiangong-1 module.

Shenzhou 1 through Shenzhou 4 were automated tests that did not carry crews.  Shenzhou-5, in 2003, was China's first human spaceflight, with one crew member.  Shenzhou-6 carried two crew members in 2005.  Shenzhou-7 in 2008 carried three crew, one of whom performed a short spacewalk.  Shenzhou-8 was an automated rendezvous and docking test with the Tiangong-1 module -- no crew was aboard either craft.  Shenzhou-9 is the mission now underway.  Shenzhou-10 is planned for next year, probably with another three-person crew.

China plans to build a larger, 60-metric-ton, space station later in the decade.   Tiangong-1 is only 8.6 metric tons.  By comparison, the International Space Station is 400 metric tons.

EnhancedView News Not so Rosy for GeoEye

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Jun-2012 (Updated: 23-Jun-2012 06:13 PM)

The deal apparently is not yet done on the next year of funding under EnhancedView after all, at least for one of the two commercial satellite imagery companies that depend on that government contract as a major revenue source.  GeoEye submitted two letters to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Friday that spell out National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) plans for funding existing contracts with GeoEye.  The news is not as rosy as it could be, though it is not necessarily dire either.

GeoEye submitted two letters to the SEC that it received from NGA.  Both are dated June 22, the same day GeoEye sent them to the SEC.  The first informs GeoEye that the government may not exercise the full contract option for year 3 (September 1, 2012 - August 31, 2013) unless it gets additional funding, while the second notifies the company that the government will not fully fund a cost-share agreement for acquiring the next GeoEye satellite, GeoEye-2.  Space News reported the existence of these letters in its on-line edition this morning.

Enhanced View is a 10-year NGA contract (one-year with nine one-year options) with GeoEye and DigitalGlobe to purchase imagery on a Service Level Agreement (SLA) basis.  The contract was signed in 2010 as a follow-on to earlier contracts that date back to 2003.  Constrained funding and reduced imagery requirements now that the Iraq war has ended and the Afghanistan conflict is winding down are leading NGA to reconsider the deal. 

It was reported earlier this week that both DigitalGlobe and GeoEye were told by NGA on June 15 that their year 3 contracts would be renewed.  DigitalGlobe issued a press release saying its contract was renewed for the entirety of year 3 under the terms of the EnhancedView contract.  GeoEye was silent and still has not issued a press release on this topic.  Instead it notified the SEC and thus stakeholders of its changed outlook for the future.

The first letter from NGA says that "due to funding shortfalls" it will not fully exercise the option for year 3 of the SLA.  NGA instead proposes negotiating a new arrangement with GeoEye under which it would fund the SLA for three months (through November 30, 2012) with a separate option for the remaining nine months of year 3.  NGA would exercise the three-month option only if GeoEye's SIPRNET and NIPRNET Web Hosting Service is operational and validated by August 15, 2012.  The nine-month option would be exercised only if that service is operational and NGA receives additional funding.  

 "Assuming the company agrees to this proposal ... total service revenue would be $159.0 million.  There can be no assurances, however, that funding will be available to NGA to exercise both options as proposed," GeoEye cautioned the SEC.

NGA's budget is classified, so the amount of funding it requested for FY2013 is not known publicly, but the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) wants to increase it by $125 million to ensure that both companies stay in business.

The second letter says that the government will not provide all of its share for building and launching GeoEye-2, currently scheduled for launch next year.  NGA originally indicated it would pay up to $337 million of the approximately $835 million cost of the satellite (including launch and insurance), according to Space News. 

GeoEye told the SEC that NGA has already obligated $181 million of the $337 million and NGA's letter confirms it will meet that obligation, but no further funds will be provided.   GeoEye recently met a milestone that triggers payment of $111 million of the $181 million and GeoEye reported to the SEC that it expects those funds within 30 days.  To get the remaining $70 million, GeoEye will have to meet additional new milestones levied by NGA that include proving it has the financial resources to complete the satellite.  But the $181 million will be the end of government support for the satellite.  GeoEye will have to find other sources to make up the $176 million shortfall between that and the $337 million it was expecting.

The NGA letters do not doom GeoEye -- in fact, it could still get all of its year 3 SLA money if Congress provides sufficient funding.  The outlook for full government support of GeoEye-2 seems dim based on the letter, but Congress could change that, too.   GeoEye told the SEC that it will negotiate with NGA as the agency requested.  The answer to its financial future, however, will probably have to await final congressional action on the defense authorization and appropriation bills and there is no clear timetable for when that will occur.

Chinese Astronauts Prepare for Manual Docking Attempt

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Jun-2012 (Updated: 23-Jun-2012 12:51 PM)

Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang and Liu Yang are preparing to undock the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft from the Tiangong-1 space station and then redock using manual controls instead of the automated controls used when they first docked on Monday.

Xinhua (in English) says the manual docking will take place "about noon" on Sunday Beijing time.   That would be about midnight tonight (Saturday) Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).

Liu Wang will be at the controls of Shenzhou-9 during the manual docking.   On Friday, he and mission commander Jing did a systems test while remaining docked to Tiangong-1, using Shenzhou's thrusters to maneuver the complex.   Liu Yang, China's first woman astronaut, monitored the test from inside Tiangong-1.

The Chinese media repeatedly state that this a 13-day mission, but have not specifically announced the landing date or time.   Thirteen days would make it Friday, June 29, so presumably if the manual docking goes well, the crew will return to Tiangong-1 for several more days.  They have been conducting a series of medical and other biological studies.  Liu Yang is in charge of the scientific program for the mission.

 

Holdren: U.S. is Number One in Space and Intends to Stay That Way

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Jun-2012 (Updated: 21-Jun-2012 10:19 PM)

Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee yesterday that despite what some people say, the United States is the world leader in space activities. 

The space program was only one of many topics debated at the hearing, which focused on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and President Obama's science policies and priorities.  Holdren also serves as Director of OSTP.

"We continue ... to lead the world in space, although sometimes the contrary is asserted," he told Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D- CA).   "Our planetary exploration programs have absolutely no peer.  .... some people say China is overtaking [us].  China just put its first woman in space a few days ago.  We put our first woman in space, Sally Ride, in 1983.  One can go through the list.  China is talking about maybe being able to land someone on the moon in 2020.  We did it in 1969."

Later, Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) cited a recent article in Space News as saying that in the past four years the country has gone from first to third place in space exploration and "I think that's a shame." 

The June 18, 2012 issue of Space News published a lengthy op-ed piece by Frank van Rensselaer that harshly criticizes the Obama Administration and NASA's leaders for "having taken the U.S. from world leadership in space to third-place status in less than four years."  Van Rensselaer is a former NASA and aerospace industry executive who worked at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Reagan Administration according to a brief biography available on the Internet.

Holdren strongly disagreed. "By any respectable set of metrics I know of, the United States is still number one in space and intends to stay that way."

On more specific NASA issues, Holdren told committee chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) that he and President Obama are confident NASA can specify and oversee safety requirements for commercial crew systems even though NASA currently is using Space Act Agreements instead of Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based contracting.  Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chair of the space and aeronautics subcommittee, asked what would happen if the companies did not perform or went out of business -- what would NASA own for the money it is expending.   Holdren replied that NASA's funding is an investment in the private sector that will yield more efficient and less expensive space missions and the idea is not for NASA to "own" anything.

Hall and Palazzo both wanted to know when the White House would announce its plans for obtaining a congressional waiver from the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) so NASA can continue to pay Russia for hardware and services for the International Space Station (ISS).  The current waiver lasts only through 2016. Holdren punted, saying only that the Administration is assessing the options even though "it's clear that it's going to be needed [and] sooner is better than later."  He declined to provide a timeline on when the administration would send a request to Congress. 

Holdren defended NASA's planetary science budget, which was cut 20% in the President's FY2013 budget request.  Repeating what others in the administration have been saying, Holdren told Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) the Mars program is "robust" despite the budget constraints and "we have not, by any means, given up our leadership in planetary exploration."  Edwards responded by emphasizing the need for predictable budgets not only for planetary science but science in general.  She said it is "unacceptable" to do research by "jumping in and out," and just ends up costing more in the long run.  Holdren agreed.  

Commercial Crew Critical for ISS, but SLS/Orion Needed for Future, Senators Stress

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jun-2012 (Updated: 20-Jun-2012 06:52 PM)

At a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing today, three Senators directed mostly friendly questions at a panel of government and private sector witnesses regarding the risks and opportunities of commercial spaceflight.  Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) emphasized that while commercial crew is needed for the near term, NASA should not "shortchange the future."  NASA needs to adequately fund the Space Launch System (SLS) and its Orion capsule, she insisted.  As for that future, subcommittee chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Michael Gold of Bigelow Aerospace were bullish on the future of microgravity research for the pharmaceutical industry in particular.

Hutchison sternly chastised NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden at an earlier hearing for, in her view, baldly taking $300 million from the SLS/Orion effort to put into commercial crew in the FY2013 budget request.  Today, she wanted an assurance from NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier that NASA would not do that again.  He said his job was to deliver commercial crew as well as SLS/Orion in a timely manner "and we're working hard to do that" within existing budget constraints. He agreed that NASA is committed to move both forward and to "find the balance to keep human spaceflight in this nation strong."   While that was not an explicit "yes," Hutchison appeared to accept the answer as the assurance she requested.  Her focus was on ensuring that "in 2020, when ISS will go away, most likely," the United States does not face another gap in human spaceflight like today.

Hutchison is retiring this year.  She was a key figure in designating the International Space Station (ISS) as a national laboratory, and in passing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  The Act struck a compromise between allowing the Obama Administration to proceed with its plan to turn crew transportation to low Earth orbit (LEO) over to the private sector and Congress's desire to keep NASA in the human spaceflight business by building "beyond LEO" systems -- SLS and Orion -- to take astronauts further into space.   

Nelson also talked about what would happen when "we get to 2020 and ISS is deactivated," but in the sense of lamenting that no one is paying attention to the important research being done there already, especially in vaccines.

How long ISS will operate is important for the business plans of companies developing commercial cargo and crew systems since many anticipate NASA will be the major customer for those services.  Gerstenmaier said that NASA needs two crew flights a year, four people each time, to support ISS.   If a spacecraft can carry more than four, NASA will decide how best to use the remaining capacity for cargo or additional people.  He said NASA hopes to increase the ISS crew size to seven, the number for which it was originally designed.  It is currently limited to six because of the capacity of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that ferry crews back and forth.   Nelson pressed Gerstenmaier on when commercial crew services will be available if Congress provides only $525 million instead of $830 million as the Administration requested for FY2013.   Gerstenmaier said that NASA is planning on 2017 if it receives that level for FY2013, but a higher level in future years.

If commercial crew became available in 2017 and the ISS ends operations in 2020, that is a very limited NASA market.   However, Michael Gold of Bigelow Aerospace stressed that his company is building inflatable space modules also as research facilities in orbit and hopes to attract countries like Japan and Singapore to use them.  He said their business model is not all that different from the ISS and sought to "get rid of some misperceptions" that Bigelow is building a space hotel or a space casino.  It is not building either, he emphasized.

Instead Bigelow's business model is signing up foreign governments to do microgravity research and development.   He joined with Nelson in extolling the promise of microgravity research.   "We are grossly underestimating the impact on our economy" initially in "pharma and biotech," he exclaimed (using pharma as shorthand for the pharmaceutical industry).  He cautioned that the "microgravity revolution will happen in pharma and other sectors.  The question is will it happen in America or in China."   First, however, routine, affordable access to space is needed, at dramatically lower prices than the approximately $60 million per seat Russia charges NASA.  "We are extraordinarily dependent on the success of the commercial crew program," Gold said. 

Gold also stressed that regulatory issues are just as important as price.  He ranted against the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), saying that Bigelow had to spend about $1 million to comply with ITAR when it launched two test inflatable modules on Russian launch vehicles.  What really irritated him, he said, was that he doubted any sensitive technology was protected.   Nelson reminded him that China acquired sensitive technology when U.S. companies exported satellites to China for launch and "balance" is needed.

Despite the publicity on Monday about the FAA-NASA agreement on each agency's roles and responsibilities for ensuring the safety of commercial human spaceflight, the topic got little attention at the hearing.  Instead, FAA's Pamela Melroy focused on the need for an extension to the government's authority to indemnify commercial launch companies against third party liability claims resulting from launch or reentry accidents.  The authority has been extended several times over the years and currently expires on December 31, 2012.  The House Science, Space and Technology Committee devoted an entire hearing to that topic two weeks ago.  The Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) Gerald Dillingham said today that GAO supports a short term extension while a complete review of the issue is conducted.  The Obama Administration wants a 5-year extension.  At the House hearing, industry witnesses wanted the authority  made permanent.  GAO also wants to look at whether the indemnification should be broadened to include on-orbit activities in addition to launch and reentry.  Nelson said "we've simply got to contiune" that regime and subcommittee ranking member John Boozman (R-AR) seemed to agree.  (The House committee also appeard supportive of an extension.)

As for the safety of commercial crew flights, Michael Lopez-Alegria of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) said CSF agrees that "the principle that NASA should have the final say so in safety is key."  He is a former astronaut.  Melroy, another former astronaut, said the FAA is restricted in what discussions it can have with industry about pasenger safety until it has a formal rulemaking underway.   The FAA is currently prohibited by law from imposing new passenger safety regulations for commercial spacecraft until 2015.   Gerstenmaier said NASA has publicly released its safety requirements so companies know what they must do to comply with them.

Boozman asked about the need for NASA to get another waiver from the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA).  Gerstenmaier repeated what he has said in other hearings that whether or not NASA purchases crew flights from Russia after 2016 when the current waiver expires, ISS operations are interdependent and another waiver is needed.  The law prohibits NASA from paying or making in-kind agreements with Russia for anything related to the ISS.  The law is intended to restrain Russia from providing certain technologies to those three countries.   Nelson said "we don't have any choice" about passing another waiver.

Prepared statements and the webcast are available on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee's website.

Current and Three Former NASA Administrators to Share Perspectives with NRC Committee Next Week

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Jun-2012 (Updated: 20-Jun-2012 12:51 AM)

The National Research Council's (NRC's) study committee on NASA's Strategic Direction will hear from the current NASA Administrator as well as three of his predecessors at its meeting next week in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, directed NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) to contract for an independent assessment of NASA's strategic direction in the FY2012 CJS appropriations bill.   The OIG selected the NRC to conduct the study, which held its first meeting in April.

The second meeting will be held next week, June 25-27, 2012.   Among the speakers are current NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and three previous NASA Administrators:

  • Jim Beggs, who served as administrator during the early years of the Reagan Administration and is credited with winning approval for what is today known as the International Space Station (ISS) program despite widespread opposition from Reagan's cabinet.  Beggs is retired now and chairs the NASA Alumni League.
  • Vice Admiral (Ret.) Dick Truly, who served as administrator during the George H.W. Bush Administration as it tried and ultimately failed to win support for the Space Exploration Initiative to take humans back to the Moon and on to Mars.  A former astronaut who left NASA in 1983 to return to the Navy after piloting the second space shuttle mission  (STS-2) and commanding the eighth (STS-8), Truly rejoined NASA as Associate Administrator for Space Flight immediately after the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy and led that return-to-flight effort.  He rose to become administrator when the first President Bush was sworn into office.  He went on to run DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, from which he retired in 2004.
  • Sean O'Keefe, who headed the agency during part of the first term of President George W. Bush. A former Secretary of the Navy, O'Keefe was brought into the George W. Bush Administration as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but after a year shifted over to run NASA and get ISS program costs under control, but the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy changed everything. O'Keefe ended up leading the agency as the Bush White House announced the Vision for Space Exploration, another effort to return humans to the Moon and go on to Mars.  The program became known as Constellation, and was cancelled by President Obama, but somewhat resurrected by Congress.  O'Keefe was a close friend of Senator Ted Stevens and, along with his son, was in the 2010 Alaska plane crash that claimed the lives of Stevens and four others on the plane.  O'Keefe and his son, Kevin, were two of the four survivors.  He now is chairman and CEO of EADS North America.

Also on the NRC committee's agenda are

  • NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver
  • NASA Associate Adminstrator Robert Lightfoot
  • NASA Chief of Staff Dave Radzanowski (who was branch chief for science and space at the Office of Management and Budget during part of the George W. Bush administration)
  • NASA Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati
  • NASA Chief Technologist Mason Peck
  • NASA Associate Administrator for Aeronautics Jaiwon Shin
  • Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force (Space Programs) Richard McKinney
  • George Washington University Research Professor Linda Billings
  • National Air & Space Museum Senior Historian Roger Launius
  • Gregory Kulacki, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Dean Cheng, Heritage Foundation, speaking about China's space program

Paul Shawcross, current branch chief for science and space at OMB and John Olson of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are listed as invited, but not confirmed.

The meeting is at the NRC's Keck Center, 500 Fifth Street, N.W., Washington, DC.   Anyone planning to attend is requested to RSVP to Dwayne Day (dday@nas.edu) so your name can be placed on a list that will make it MUCH easier for you to enter the building.

Editor's Note:  In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of this NRC committee.   The agenda is public information and posted on the NRC's website.

Events of Interest


 

Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: